The past holds on strong at this ancient site

At the Cham Ruins in My Son, history replays itself like a ghostly video. Up here in the mountains, in the overcast misty silence, one can hear echoes of war planes that once flew overhead unleashing relentless bombs that thundered into the soft earth destroying much of the city.

This ancient Hindu temple city was established by the Champa between the 4th and 14th centuries and was dedicated to the worship of Shiva. It was also a place of burial for kings and national heroes and at one time was populated by some 70 temples. One of the longest established religious sites in all of Southeast Asia, it formed part of the wider Champa kingdom that encompassed the Cham Islands off the coast, the commercial centre at Hoi An and the capital city of Tra Kieu. They are said to be set out according to auspicious feng shui principles.

At My Son the ancient past mixes with the struggles of 21th century Vietnam to bring hope for a new future. Everything converges in this magical place. Here, the air is cooler, wild flowers nestle in the forest floor, while lotuses grow unmolested in the streams, and the air hums with insects and birds. Scenic beauty gives way to the exotic mountainside. My Son lies one hour west of Hoi An or Da Nang in a wide, verdant valley in the shadow of the Truong Son mountains through which the so called Ho Chi Minh Trail ran. This trail was a logistical supply route that mainly ran through Laos and enabled the north to send supplies and information to its troops in the south, and has been hailed as one of the greatest military engineering achievements of the 20th century.

My Son has been compared to Angkor in Cambodia but it is much smaller and also older by some 500 – 700 years. Its builders used a method of mortarless brick construction that apparently repels any incursion of lichens and mould. The brick gives the buildings a distinctive terracotta color, rather than the gray of Angkor, and is striking against the rich greens of the lush forest. In the 1890s, a French team of archaeologists led by Henri Parmentier recorded all the buildings in a beautiful set of detailed drawings. In 1999 UNESCO declared My Son a World Heritage Site. And thanks to Parmentier’s work modern conservationists are able to start piecing the site back together again. But until that is completed visitors have to navigate around some deep bomb craters in between temples. How apt that this religious site should have been dedicated to Shiva: the creator, the destroyer and the conserver